Putnam pulls together a massive amount of information on participation in voluntary organizations--including churches, synagogues, and temples. Membership and participation in civic groups like the Lion's Club, Shriners, PTA, and League of Women Voters have been on a downward spiral since the 1950s. So, too, are voting patterns in local communities as well as national elections.
Religious trends are more stable, especially over the past three decades, but hardly immune from the acids of individualism. Using these particular associations as an index, his conclusion does seem to follow.
Putnam's argument about the social capital of voluntary associations is crucial, but the empirical base on which his argument rests is troubling. First, there is the 1950s Golden Era against which he charts the downward spiral. It is true the immediate post-World War II period gave rise to voluntary organizations with large and strong followings. Churches were expanding, new schools were under construction, people were buying suburban homes, and the race to the moon was on. The Communist threat brought unity of purpose around God, family, and country. It was a time of community building, when people rallied around that elusive, yet powerful vision called the "American Way of Life."
Looking back on this period, it was a time when cultural boundaries were clearer, and the options fewer and more agreed-upon.
We should hold our nostalgia in check, however, for there are other features not so praiseworthy about the period. The voluntary organizations of the time were largely white and dominated by men. Religiosity was pervasive, but shallow. Women and minorities were seething with frustration. Sexuality was repressed. In retrospect, the 1950s was not a good decade against which to mount an argument of national decline.
Because of the omnipresence of television, people born since 1950 seem to be more passive; because of the Vietnam War and Watergate, they have less confidence in social institutions. Religious attendance appears to be down a bit, but many people--both inside and outside the religious establishment--are addressing deep spiritual questions that go unnoticed when attention is given only to religious organizations.
Putnam has a point, too, about the types of organizations in which younger generations are prone to become involved--small groups dealing with personal feelings, nonprofits, and specialized memberships like the Sierra Club. Many religious and spiritual support groups are of this sort. Such groups do not have lasting, face-to-face social interaction like the civic clubs of the past.
Yet we must be cautious: community is not always uniform across time, and new types of association are emerging. Even within the most navel-gazing of 12-step groups, people often report that they gain clarity about their self-absorption and actually become renewed in their commitments to family and to the larger community. Who knows what may come of these deep encounters? What seem like poor substitutes for civic enrichment may yet prove otherwise, or at least not the diversion of energies they are often pictured to be.
Much depends on the digital revolution, and what it might mean for community-building in the future. As happened with technological advances in the past, there is worry that this latest, more faceless mode of interaction will lead to the dissolution of community. Certainly it will alter how communities are formed, but it does not rule out the possibility of pulling people together in ways we have yet to imagine. Civic involvement comes in many forms, some of which are yet to emerge.
Already, churches in Los Angeles use the web to hold together their social justice and social support programs. Church leaders coordinate on the web, then make calls within their communities and congregations and organize meetings. Ultimately, it is not always obvious what was done on the web and what was done in face-to-face settings.
Americans are an inventive people. We are at once highly individualistic, yet prone to form communities. Styles of communal involvement change, but not community itself. De Tocqueville captured this enduring quality of the nation when he wrote: "Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations....In democratic countries the science of association is the mother of science; the progress of all the rest depends upon the progress it has made."
The future rests, so it would seem, on the "science of association," on that unlimited capacity of ours to reinvent community.